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Recall days gone by at annual Catskills conference

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For those with warm memories of summers spent during childhood and adolescence at the hotels and bungalow colonies of the Jewish Catskills, the 8th Annual Catskills Conference, to be held August 23-25 at Kutsher’s Country Club, is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with old friends.

The conference is organized by the Catskills Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Jewish Catskills, which in its heyday between the 1920s and 1970s included more than 1,000 large resorts, family-run hotels and bungalow colonies.

The “Borscht Belt,” named after the popular beet soup of Eastern European Jewish cuisine that was ladled out at the resorts there in legendary quantities, was once a premier vacation destination for generations of immigrant Eastern European Jews. They began arriving there, settling predominantly in Sullivan and parts of Ulster County, at the turn of the last century to trade the heat of the tenements and the scourge of tuberculosis for the bucolic scenery and crisp country air.

Barred entrance to the grand hotels run by gentiles, these immigrant Jews created their own summer Eden in the Catskills, where they could feel comfortable with other landsleit (countrymen) who spoke the same language, and shared the same customs, cuisine, and religion.

From humble farms and boardinghouses, which offered fresh milk and produce, grew elaborate resorts with Olympic-sized swimming pools, monster golf courses, glamorous entertainment and every conceivable amenity. The resorts flourished as a haven for immigrant Jews in the process of assimilation into American society, where they could relax, unwind, romance and make connections in a comfortable environment. With the introduction of air-conditioning and air-travel in the 1950s and 1960s, which made more exotic vacation destinations like the Caribbean feasible, their popularity waned, many hotels closed, and a way of life vanished forever.

In recent years, films such as “Dirty Dancing,” a coming-of-age story set in a 1960s Jewish resort, and Pamela Gray’s depiction of bungalow life in “A Walk On The Moon,” has reawakened public interest in the Jewish Catskills.

Recognition of the Jewish Catskills as an important historical and cultural phenomenon is the goal of the Catskill Institute. “We want people to remember this incredible experience,” said Phil Brown, a former Catskills veteran and the Institute’s president. Since the organization’s founding in 1995, most of the remaining hotels have closed up, Brown said. The organization has since worked to gather together an extensive collection of hotel memorabilia. “Even hotel owners never took photographs or saved menus, rate cards or brochures. They are living history,” he said.

Brown hopes to eventually establish a permanent exhibit on Jewish hotel life. “My real fantasy is some wealthy donor gives us money to buy an old hotel and renovate it as an exhibit and run it as a museum,” he said. In the meantime, the Institute has loaned out materials to museums and synagogues.

In the fall, Brown, a professor of sociology at Brown University who also teaches a seminar there on the Jewish Catskills, will begin a nationwide tour through the Jewish Book Council, of his new book, “In The Catskills: A Century of The Jewish Experience In The Mountains.”

The book is an anthology of his own personal recollections (his parents owned a hotel, and he worked as a waiter there for many summers), literary excerpts from authors such as Abraham Cahan and Herman Wouk, scholarly interpretation, and even sheet music.

In addition to gathering archival material, the Institute maintains a Web site and publishes a bi-annual newsletter. The Web site inspires many to write about their own experiences there.

“People e-mail us about how wonderful it is to find places they went to or roads they once drove through,” Brown said. On the Web site there are also lists of people searching for lost friends and relatives.

This year’s conference will include lectures by John Weiner on the history of the White Roe adult camp. The hotel, which was operated by his Weiner and his parents, operated from the 1920s through the 1960s and was reputedly a swinging singles place. The White Roe also is known for where Hollywood legend Danny Kaye got his start.

Other lectures at the conference will include a panel session led by Clarence Steinberg on Catskill farmers and cooperatives and a speak-out session where people can give short reminisces of their experiences in the Catskills. New this year is a three-hour bus tour given by Irwin Richman, author of “Borscht Belt Bungalows,” who will point out sites of former hotels and bungalow colonies.

For more information on the conference, call Kutsher’s Country Club at 845-794-6000, or go to the Catskills Institute Web site, catskills.brown.edu.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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